Tuesday, 8 October 2013

‘Behold the Greeks! They shit on you now and forever’

It’s often assumed that because Greek is the language of science, philosophy, poetry, the Christian religion, etc, that it might be lacking when it comes to its ability to be profane, vulgar, insulting and downright rude. Of course, this is not the case.

In his The Greeks and Greek Civilization, Jacob Burckhardt writes:
‘Right from the outset, the Greeks thoroughly understood kertomein, the ache in the heart that words can inflict. It is particularly associated with mockery of unsuccessful attempts and actions; Homer tells us of the victor’s jeering and the pain it gives to the vanquished; the reader hears the full accumulated bitterness of Odysseus in his justifiable vengeance on the blinded Cyclops, and the venomous mischief-making of Theristes.’
Burckhardt then goes on to say that in the post-Homeric age ( i.e. in what he calls the ‘Agonal Age’ of Greek civilisation – from the end of Dorian migration to the end of the sixth century BC – during which the nobility, reigning throughout the Greek world, disdaining commerce and manual labour, devoted itself to ‘the practice of arms or work for the games or the state’), verbal abuse (loidoria) became an artistic genre, a style, best represented by a poet like Archilochus, and his ‘impartial abuse of friend and foe’.

No doubt when we think of Greek rudeness and vulgarity we think most of Aristophanes, who wrote his comedies in the fifth century BC; but this essay by Maroula Efthymiou – Cursing with a Message: the case of Georgios Karaiskakis in 1823 – reminds us that the ability of Greeks to dish out vicious abuse survived into the modern age.

Karaiskakis, Efthymiou says, as well as being the ‘charismatic military leader of central Greece in the 1821 revolution… a brave and daring man of wit and invention’ was also ‘irritable and ambitious, proud and magnanimous, prankish and persistent, [and] notorious for his loose tongue and the brazen torrents of obscenities he uttered.’

As proof of his obscene torrents, Efthymiou draws attention to Karaiskakis’ address to the messenger of the silihtar Boda, the Albanian general in charge of a force of 5,000 Muslim Albanians who, in the spring of 1823, were confronting Karaiskakis’ forces in central Greece:
‘Come on, you shitty Turk... Come on you Jew, you pawn of the gypsies... Fuck your faith and your Mohammed. What did you think, you cuckolds...? You should be ashamed to ask us to sign a treaty with such a shitty Sultan Mahmud. I shit on him and your vezir and that Jew silihtar Boda, the whore.’
For Efthymiou, given that for hundreds of years Greeks had lived as second-class citizens in the Ottoman empire, ‘obliged to show respect and humility towards their social and political superiors’, the ferocity and vulgarity of Karaiskakis’ outbursts against the Muslim overlords were as much a revolt and an inversion of the status quo as the armed insurrection.

But more than a revolt against the Ottomans, Efthymiou says, Karaiskakis’ vehement language was also designed to define his own status, as a Greek, as someone who was no longer a subordinate and contemptible creature – a Jew, a gypsy, a Turk or a whore – but the heir to a glorious race and civilisation.

This assertion of the new state of affairs brought about by the 1821 revolution is exemplified by another outburst Karaiskakis made against the Turks:
‘You cuckolds! The ones you captured were your own men; they were Turks and Jews because that’s what rayas means. Behold the Greeks! They shit on you now and forever!’

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